The Slatest

U.S. Limited Coronavirus Testing Because It Didn’t Have Enough Tests

A lab worker holds a syringe while conducting a sample test.
Coronavirus testing in the U.S. has been restricted because of a lack of tests. Thomas Kienzle/Getty Images

The true impact of the coronavirus on the U.S. is still to come, but the government response so far has shown worrying signs of impracticality, incoherence, and incompetence, as the virus migrated from China around the world. The biggest cause for concern has been the government’s inability to coordinate a rigorous testing procedure to try to limit exposure as the virus approached. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in February, rolled out diagnostic kits, and shipped hundreds to state labs around the country, only to later discover the tests were flawed and ultimately futile. With efforts to deploy replacement tests expected to take weeks, testing was confined to the CDC’s labs in Atlanta. Since the test process was so difficult to access, and the testing capacity only at around 400 per day, the criteria for Americans to get tested were extremely narrow.

These early decisions of the Trump administration are coming under increasing criticism, not because it is expected to magically solve the problem, but because it has not taken basic steps to provide the infrastructure to respond to a potential outbreak when it might have actually made a difference. How much of a difference it would have made is up for debate, but with few Americans getting tested and the process of confirming a coronavirus case a dayslong procedure, the U.S. response has been, at best, leaky so far. On Monday, the Trump administration committed to vastly expanded coronavirus testing after 103 Americans have been infected and six have died.

“Clearly, there have been problems with rolling out the test,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, former director of the CDC, told the New York Times. “There are a lot of frustrated doctors and patients and health departments.” In the past few days, the CDC abruptly removed the number of coronavirus tests carried out in the U.S. from its website, prompting concern about its transparency in detailing its own decision-making, as well as the spread of the virus. “The incompetence has really exceeded what anyone would expect with the CDC,” Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, told the Times. “This is not a difficult problem to solve in the world of viruses.” By late last week, the CDC had only tested 500 specimens, while other countries were testing tens of thousands of suspected cases, and China was likely testing millions of patients.